Monday, May 20, 2019

In Eastern Europe, a media battle for hearts and minds

Atlantic Magazine features the clash of ideas in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban vs. philanthropist George Soros.
Many of the right-wing or nationalist leaders of Eastern and Central Europe have been winning votes by attacking the political correctness of the European Union and its allies.

And they have chosen as their whipping boy George Soros, the billionaire and philanthropist whose Open Society Foundations have been funding programs that promote Western democratic values like freedom of expression, human rights, equality, and social justice.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is part of the reason. He has never gotten over the humiliation of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Even worse was seeing three former member republics --Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia-- join the European Union in 2004, along with four former Eastern bloc members, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. He is using media to try to get them back.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

People are more important than the product

Reflections on several decades of managing news publications

A student in a media management course had to interview a media professional for his final research project. I agreed to be his subject, and in the course of an hour, he got me to talk about my philosophy of management in the digital era.

Reading over the transcript of that interview, I realized how my thinking had changed over the years. The main lesson I learned was to put people first. Growing up in the old newspaper model of the news factory, I developed skill in the processes of production, meeting deadlines, getting the product out the door. That was the priority: produce a sufficent quantity of content at a level of professional quality consistent with the limitations of time, money, and space (the news pages) available.

The paradox

Over time, I discovered an interesting paradox: Putting people first generates more profit. If you think first about developing your people and helping them achieve their personal and professional goals, the profit will follow. When you create an organization where people feel they are growing and learning and participating in a mission bigger than themselves, they become tremendously creative and productive.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Smart money is betting on local, trustworthy news

This blog post started out as an explanation to my friends and family in Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, why their local newspapers had become shadows of their former selves. Why their newspapers were so thin. Why news coverage was so shallow. Why they felt like they weren't getting their money's worth.

From trust to distrust in one decade. Pew.
And we will get there in a minute, but first, some good news. It was heartening to see the Knight Foundation's recent announcement that it was committing $300 million over five years to strengthen journalism, from the ground up, by focusing on local news and on encouraging collaboration.

 “We’re not funding one-offs. We’re helping to rebuild a local news ecosystem, reliable and sustainable, and we’re doing it in a way that anyone who cares can participate,” said Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation president.

Gradually, civic minded individuals and organizations have realized that the loss of local news coverage threatens democracy and citizen participation. Citizens don't know what's going on, which leaves elected officials unaccountable for how they provide services and spend the public's money. “Reliable news and information are essential for people to make democracy work,” said Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation vice president for journalism.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Time machine: the year broadband arrived

Digging through some old files recently, I came across a column I wrote for the Baltimore Business Journal 22 years ago. It described how our cable TV and internet provider had installed fiber-optic cable in the neighborhood.

This new distribution channel transformed a clunky dialup internet service into a lightning fast information source. The hyperbole and enthusiasm expressed in the column are slightly embarrassing for someone who prides himself on skepticism. But some of it was right on target.

Versión en español

It began, "Public libraries could be in danger." I described how I used this new service to research an advertising client before going to a meeting with the CEO. I was the publisher of the newspaper and thus ultimately responsible for sales. The column went on to contrast the internet with a library:

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

When government fails, 'business has to step up'

Businesses like to devote part of their marketing and public relations budget to promote how they are  giving back to society. We are not just about profits, they try to say. And the message is arguably true, not just propaganda, as far as it goes.

Fink, from
But we are starting to hear a different kind of message from business people, and it goes like this:
"Around the world, frustration with years of stagnant wages, the effect of technology on jobs, and uncertainty about the future have fueled popular anger, nationalism, and xenophobia. In response, some of the world’s leading democracies have descended into wrenching political dysfunction, which has exacerbated, rather than quelled, this public frustration. Trust in multilateralism and official institutions is crumbling." -- Larry Fink,
(emphasis mine)
Business people will have to fill the gap left by polarized and paralyzed national governments: this is the message of Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world's largest mutual fund company. Businesses have to show that they have a higher purpose than just making money. And, by the way, it's in your own interest to do so, he says. BlackRock has used its position as a major shareholder of some companies to push for more socially conscious policies.

(More coverage of Fink's letter was in Bloomberg, Forbes, and Reuters, among others.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

What money can't buy in media

Money talks. Put your money where your mouth is. Show me the money.

We have lots of expressions that equate money with crebility and trust. How people get and spend their money is often the most credible expression of what they value and who they are.

We attribute so much value to money and to the way it expresses our true beliefs that historian Yuval Noah Harari declared in his bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:

 "Money is accordingly a system of mutual trust, and not just any system of mutual trust: money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised."

By extension, this belief in money as the best measure of value of everything in modern society -- the loss of a loved one (insurance payouts), the salary of a teacher or a CEO, a barrel of oil -- has led us to trust markets too much.

In fact, many studies have shown that the media marketplace puts great value in misinformation, disinformation, sensationalism, gossip, and entertainment (Pew, Reuters Institute, Science Advances), as measured by revenue and profits generated from advertising. This is how social networks like Facebook and Instagram make their money.

Versión en español

In putting so much faith in the Invisible Hand of markets, we have devalued the importance of ethics, credibility, trust, and community. (Among my other holiday reading on the topic were a recent column by David Brooks, Jeffrey D. Sachs's The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity and Joseph E. Stiglitz's The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

What causes market bubbles, and are we in one?

An all-star group of media economics experts gathered at the University of Navarra Dec. 13 and 14 to exchange ideas and research results on the role and behavior of media during periods of economic or financial boom and crash.

Their approaches were varied: historical, media effects, content analysis, journalistic practice, political economy, etc.

(The full program is here.)

Many of the presentations centered on media coverage of the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 and its impact in countries including Ireland, England, Greece, Spain, the U.S., the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark. The papers provoked lively debate among the participants, since there was significant time between presentations for questions and comments.

The studies used ingenious research methods and rigorous statistical analysis to tease out surprising insights. I had the unenviable task of providing a summary at the end, on a Friday night, in just 10 minutes. So here is the cheeky result, with apologies to my learned colleagues:

Cause of bubbles: audiences
    •    Overwhelmed by complexity
    •    Uninterested in economics
    •    Ignorant
    •     . . . even willfully ignorant
    •    Lazy, complacent
    •    Delusional

Causes of bubbles: journalists
    •    Overwhelmed by complexity
    •    Lacking training in economics
    •    Excessive sourcing from handful of public officials and financial industry experts
    •    Excessive sourcing from charlatans posing as experts
    •    Overworked, underpaid, forced to write click bait
    •    Self-censorship, serving ownership interests
    •    Uninterested, ignorant
    •    Lazy, complacent
    •    Unethical
    •    Sometimes corrupt